Last month, 10 doctoral students from around the world travelled to Dar es Salaam to attend the Policy Communication Fellows Summer Institute. They represented seven nations and 10 academic institutions and their research spanned the fields of sociology, demography, political science, social geography, and public health. PRB has offered this program for 30 years, and this year, for the first time, held it outside the United States and in partnership with the Advocacy Accelerator* and Amref Health Africa.
The Fellows arrived expecting to learn how to succinctly communicate complex research and results, take research outside of the academic “ivory tower,” bring a voice to real issues facing communities, and bridge the gap between evidence-based findings and policies. They were in the right place! Throughout the Summer Institute, the Fellows learned why the research-to-policy gap exists, how to overcome it and create a window of opportunity for policy change, and what concrete actions they could take to effectively communicate evidence to policy and nontechnical audiences.
On Day Two of the Summer Institute, I had my own “Aha!” moment while delivering a presentation…on delivering presentations. I realized that the key to Fellows’ success in the Summer Institute was learning how to K.I.S.S…Keep it Short and Simple, that is. If the fellows could grasp this concept and adapt their communication styles accordingly, they might effectively use their research to impact a myriad of policies and hot-topic issues in gender equality, population growth, and reproductive and maternal health.
Surely, keeping it simple must be easy, right? Not quite. Simplifying a message, while retaining the rigor and complexity of the evidence and importance of the implications, can be a weighty task. In fact, Elizabeth Kemigisha, a fellow, equated this process to “learning a new language.” While she’s become accustomed to using terms well-understood by her colleagues, she realized “research is so difficult to interpret in layman’s terms.” Another fellow, Rogers Hansine, researches urban socio-spatial diversity and fertility disparities in Maputo. While this topic might resonate in an academic setting, he simplified the key message for potential policy audiences: Women living in poorer areas of Maputo, with limited access to public services such as education and health care, tend to have larger family sizes.
Fellows were tasked with identifying the policy relevance of their research findings, concisely explaining the implications of their data, and creating actionable recommendations, all while keeping the audience foremost in their communication approach. Often, this required Fellows to hone in on one or two of their critical results and translate those findings to a digestible message that could spur policymakers to act. One Fellow, Sneha Kumar, reflected on the difficulty of removing superfluous information when presenting a policy message: “Sometimes when we conduct research, there’s a lot of caveats to what we say. There are a lot of different takeaways from the main part. But, there is still an underlying key message. And being able to identify that key message and after identifying it, being able to present it in a way that could be understood by a nontechnical audience was the most difficult thing for me.”
Our Fellows excelled in the Summer Institute and have great potential to use their research to influence many consequential policy changes, ranging from comprehensive sexuality education guidelines in Uganda to addressing the negative associations of masculine honor in gender and public health policies in Afghanistan. The doctoral students absorbed the instruction, grappled with the communication paradigm shift, and encouraged each other throughout the week. Ultimately, they grew from obscure dissertation speakers to cogent policy enthusiasts. This cohort of Policy Communication Fellows have begun to learn how to effectively communicate their research to nontechnical audiences, proving it’s never too late in your career to re-learn the art of the K.I.S.S.
*The Advocacy Accelerator is an emerging platform for online and in-person engagement that aims to link advocates with the information, expertise, and connections they need to improve health and development.